Sheffield view: 'Jess is happy to train alongside children'
Her down-to-earth charm and record-breaking sporting prowess meant 80,000 stood to cheer her on at the Olympic Stadium yesterday,. And while a smaller crowd of more like 80 gathered in her hometown of Sheffield, the volume of their support was equal testament to Jessica Ennis's place as one of Britain's favourite Olympians.
The crowd gathered around large screens at Don Valley Stadium to watch their local superstar heptathlete in a two-day festival to celebrate the athlete for whom no one seems to have a bad word.
Darrell Johnson, who owns a florist in Abbeydale close to where Ennis lives, was delighted at her early show of form in the hurdles.
"It couldn't have got off to a better start," he said. "She comes into the shop and she is so down to earth. We've got a big photograph of her in the window – all the shops around our way have," he said.
Kaye Pigott, manager of Ennis's local pub Millhouses, said it was not unknown for her to pop in for a drink, albeit a non-alcoholic one, and the community were all rooting for her. She said. "With football you have always got people in the pub cheering for different teams but this is bringing everyone together."
In the heyday of British athletics in the early 1990s Don Valley, built on the site of derelict steelworks, routinely filled its 25,000 seats. Now top events bring in 18,000. There are high hopes that the Olympics can help turn this around and that a local success story may be just the trick.
Steve Brailey, the chief executive of Sheffield International Venues, said Ennis was an inspiration who had remained loyal to her roots. "One of the best things about her is that she is happy to train alongside the children or the community athletes. She always stops for a photo, mixes with everyone – she doesn't shut herself away," he said.
Last night former staff and pupils were gathering at her former school King Ecgbert's for a hot-air balloon ride over the city courtesy of the National Lottery, which has lavished £76m on sport in Sheffield since 1994.
Former English teacher Ian Rouse recalled Ennis as an able and committed student who went on to study psychology at Sheffield University. "It is a bit strange to see her competing in the Olympics but I bumped into her in the supermarket the other day and she was completely normal," he said.
"I was never aware of how much training she was doing. She was absolutely smashing – bright, enthusiastic, hardworking, a great kid to teach."
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